Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

26756345_10155416180588981_2796859692042557984_oBy Philip Pearce

PAPER WING THEATRE COMPANY’S new production of Christopher Durang’s Tony Award winning Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike does nicely by the play’s underlying pattern of domestic farce but at the cost of its central Chekhov overtones.

We learn right away that moody siblings Vanya and Sonia and Masha share names lifted from Chekhov plays because their highbrow parents were involved in Bucks County community theater. Now fifty something, Vanya (Jay DeVine) and Sonia (Kate Bradley Faber) occupy the gradually decaying family home in rural Pennsylvania. Here they brood, bicker and irritate each other but share a common resentment at the success their sister Masha (Teresa Del Piero) enjoys as an international movie star. When Masha suddenly bursts in for a weekend, Vanya and Sonia aren’t fooled by her Hollywood gush and flimflam. They know Masha spells trouble. Like Arkadina in The Seagull she has acquired a lover half her age. In Masha’s case he’s a muscular wannabe actor named Spike (the energetic and flexible Justin Gaudoin) who can’t resist finding excuses to strip down to his underpants and ends up in a secret side romance with a sweet local ingénue whose name, like the heroine of The Seagull, is Nina (Ashley Shaffer). Like Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard, Masha also returns home with a money-making plan up her sleeve that reignites old family fights and revives old family feuds. This being a kind of Kaufman and Hart take on a Chekhov situation, everything ends up heaps better for Vanya and Sonia and Masha than it was when the lights went up on Act 1. It’s a curious but intriguing blend of whizzbang 20th century domestic comedy and dramatic situations that closely parallel major plot points in several of Chekhov’s stage masterpieces.

Del Piero is an unchanging delight as the vain and unreflectively conceited Masha. She takes firm control of the household and God help any sibling who tries to take it back. Watch her as she smoothly but firmly puts down her sister Sonia’s efforts to interrupt an extended description of how a “famous theater director” (“famous,” it develops, only to Masha) has pressured her to quit all the blockbuster sex symbol stuff and become “the American Judi Dench.“

The rest of the cast, to a person, are lively and likeable. They are, in fact, so pleasant to watch at work that their agreeableness as people sometimes gets in the way of darker areas in the characters they are playing. Bradley Faber is so clearly a bright and sensitive person off stage that the sarcastic verbal barbs her on-stage Sonia aims at the flamboyant Masha aren’t so much nasty bi-polar insults as perky comebacks in a battle of wits.

DeVine‘s Vanya is closer to his Chekhovian namesake. Outwardly placid but with a troubled commitment to peace at any price, he is like Uncle Vanya, but his secret dream of being recognized as a playwright also makes him like the thin-skinned artistic Konstantin in The Seagull. Like Konstantin, he plots with Nina to stage a disastrous family performance of an awkward but deeply sincere playlet he has written. It’s an abstract effort about American problems like climate change and water pollution, whereas Konstantin’s play struggles with the slow collapse of pre-Revolutionary Russian society and values.

Elizabeth Davison’s director notes indicate that she realizes these Chekhovian elements will probably puzzle many of the encouragingly young audiences Paper Wing attracts. There’s a sense in which Christopher Durang’s play can be viewed as a smarty-pants challenge to theater buffs to spot the literary borrowings. Davison seems content to leave it at that. But her decision makes it difficult to cope with a character like the family’s weird prophetic housecleaner Cassandra. She’s played by the winsome Norma Barocio as such a comic strip Native American goofball that there is little sense that the script also presents her as a genuinely spooky harbinger of future family catastrophes right out of classic Greek tragedy.

And there are the two Seagull moments when the three central characters halt whatever’s going on and stare out the window waiting for a blue heron to land on the lake at the bottom of their Bucks County property.

Davison seems content just to leave these Chekhov echoes as unexplained intrusions. She has skill and sensitivity in moving character groups effectively around a big stage area in the interest of fast comedy. But I kind of wish she had also at least tried to introduce some hint of ironic Russian atmosphere into the quieter reflective sections of the production. Or chosen another script for her Paper Wing directing debut.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike plays weekends at 8 until January 27th.

8 Tens @ 8

By Philip Pearce

FORTY MINUTES before opening night curtain time of the latest 8 Tens @ 8 festival, a line of patrons already stretched halfway into the surrounding complex of Santa Cruz artist studios. They weren’t queuing for tickets, they already had them. Hugging and kissing, nursing bouquets and programs, they were waiting to nab the best open seating for another crowd-pleasing look at winning scripts from Actors’ Theatre’s nationwide 10-minute play writing contest.

Since its inception in 1985, it’s become such a sold-out event, that the festival may still call itself “8 Tens@ 8,” but it’s now 16 tens performed in repertory on two evenings, eight on “Night A,” eight others on “Night B.” Having cravenly hived off to London and entirely missed last year’s “B” evening, I promised myself I’d cover the entire field this year and it was a rewarding experience.

Whatever their other virtues or shortcomings, fifteen of the winning plays stick to a single incident and avoid the tyro writer’s trap of trying to cram an hour’s worth of plot into ten minutes worth of playing time. The nonconforming sixteenth script, which covers a lifetime, turns out to be the exception that proves the rule and emerges as one of the high points of “B.”

This year offers more than the usual number of social problem plays—stories Warner Brothers would have told you generations ago were “ripped from today’s headlines.” “A” starts off with pedophilia, though it only pops up as an unjustified charge in the closing moments of Eileen Valentino Flaxman’s loosely structured but winning “Esther Williams Explained.” A bright and inquisitive pre-teen schoolgirl (Olivia Gillanders) meets an ingratiating 60-something African American man named Casper (JJ Porter) when she unwittingly wanders into the railroad crossing guardhouse he has occupied since he retired from gainful employment on the rail company’s rolling stock. His erudite and goofy exchanges with the girl are heaps more interesting than the lame, unresolved suspicions her father voices when he bursts in just before the play ends.

Domestic violence lurks in the background of Jeffrey Strausser’s “Homecoming,” (“A”). A young mother named Celeste (Kye Solomon) begs late-night sanctuary in the house of a neighboring couple after she and her infant child suffer violence from her angry husband. But the neighbors who reluctantly let her in turn out to be a raging and terrified control freak named Walter (Tom Arns) and his seemingly demented wife Nora (Hannah Eckstein). The acting and Gail Borkowski’s direction are a tad too frantic and unfocused, but the girl’s interactions with the troubled couple and the secrets that everyone harbors make this a more convincing effort than the preachy ideological debates of the other “social problem” offerings.

In Paul Donnelly’s “The New Client’” (“B”), Margaret, a married lesbian (Alie Mac), is appalled when her lawyer spouse Lee-Ann (Jennifer Galvin) insists on taking on the legal defense of a homophobic couple whose bakery has refused to supply a birthday cake to the child of another lesbian couple. Lee-Ann’s arguments and Margaret’s explosive protests cover the relevant issues well enough, but the two women are more like embodied concepts than rounded characters.

It’s much the same with Joe Starzyk’s “After the Darkness,” in spite of a powerful and terrifying performance by Donald Grube as a psychopathic murderer and the touching clarity of Andrea Konrad’s decision to free herself by forgiving him for the brutal murder of her son. Skillful enough in its organization of the moral and theological issues, the play is more of a well-crafted parable than a fully convincing character study.

Climate change has gone viral in the futurist dystopia inhabited by the two characters in Hannah Vaughn’s “M & The Water Man.” He (Michael LaMere) makes what he says is his last delivery of bottled water to a lady named M (Joyce Michaelson) and spends ten minutes urging her to flee her desert home before she either freezes or burns to death. Her arguments for staying put seem farfetched and, despite a lot of shouts and kissing, it’s just a repetitive he-says-she-says debate till M sensibly gives in and packs her bag.

Though 8 Tens 2018 leans heavily on these current social issues, the overall standards of performance and writing seem more in sync with the other contrasting comedy and character pieces.

A common theme of that group is strong-minded females sharing explicit, down-and-dirty conversations about the mechanics, equipment and permutations of sexual intercourse. It sometimes happens in an atmosphere of nostalgic horseplay and sentimentality, as in “Pink Roses and Apple Pie” by Lindsey Esplin, and sometimes with a frisky and Trump-like focus on the size of genitalia in Paola Bruni‘s “Michelangelo’s Jesus,” both plays offered on Night “B.”

The sex comedy hit with most of the opening night audience was clearly “Phone Sets,” by Karen Schamberg and Wilma Chandler. The versatile Joyce Michaelson and the equally versatile Hannah Eckstein get some raucous fun out of a pair of aging nuns who decide to collect cash for their sisterly retirement home by turning themselves into practitioners of phone sex.

Not about sex, considerably quieter and a lot wittier are Mark Nutter’s “The Anonymous Donor” (“A”), which takes an ironic poke at self-seeking home-grown philanthropy, and Dennis Porter’s wry and pointed “Lost and Found” which attacks the question of What is Art—and What Maybe Isn’t.

My personal comedy favorite was an Evening “A” play by Steven Capasso, who also plays a convincing homeless man in “The Anonymous Donor.” In “Waiting For Their Flight”–listed as “While Waiting for The Plane,“–two gifted young performers, Ben Fletcher and Sarah Kauffman, take on the roles of three successive, highly contrasting pairs of delayed airline passengers with a comic timing and precision that is as slick as anything that happens at this year’s festival.

But then there are almost equally fine comic moments from the ebullient and witty Lillian Bogovich and the marvelously stolid Marcus Cato playing two mismatched members of a volunteer highway cleanup team in Irene Ziegler’s “High Grass” (“B”). It’s a delightful play about getting rid of junk. Early laughter at the odd couple’s diametrically opposed approaches to highway hygiene gives way into a beautifully written, truthfully acted coda of pathos as Cato and Bogovich face up to who they really are by looking at significant pieces of personal property each has owned and had to discard.

Two other gems are “Sky Trail, Wilder,” by Allston James, and “Dragon Skin” by Steve “Spike” Wong, (“B”). James’s script pairs a couple of men for a change. Blaine (Kip Allert) has persuaded Cullen (Dave Halper), the brother of Blaine’s ex-girlfriend, to join him on a remote country trail to bury the body of Blaine’s dog Fedora. Blaine’s loss of a girl he still loves deeply links up, through his knowledge of Scandinavian burial customs, with keepsakes and souvenirs he inters along with the body of the lamented Fedora. The elements of Nordic folklore, personal loss and the need of some form of a living faith in something or anything are skillfully scripted by James, ably acted by Allert and Halper and sensitively directed by Bill Peters.

Wong has not only written but enacts the lone role in the one production that breaks the single incident rule of a good ten-minute play. And yet the play triumphs both visually and thematically. Clearly autobiographical, “Dragon Skin” is an extended monologue by a California-born Chinese named Steve. Using a costume trunk and a table set with Chinese calligraphy gear, Wong eloquently traces the pictorial shifts and starts of Steve’s early struggles to become as American as he can make himself. Only in middle age does he finally make a first voyage across the Pacific to his family’s homeland. There he meets the spirit of his long-departed grandfather and attains human wholeness, reality and stature by learning not just to accept but to rejoice in being Chinese. The closing moments of his triumphant epiphany, surrounded by the beat of Asian drums and a Center Stage framed in scarlet Asian banners are the most dramatic and visually beautiful of the 2018 Festival.

It continues through February 4th.